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The "born Schulmeister".

In September 1923, two studious young German Jews traveled from Frankfurt and Berlin to Trieste where they took ship for Jerusalem. They were emigrating and leaving their homeland forever. Their names were Shlomo Dov Goitein, known to his friends as "Fritz," and Gershom Scholem, by three years the elder. Side by side from the rail of their ship they saw the coast of the Promised Land for the first time. Both knew Hebrew well but it was a bookish Hebrew; so too their image of the holy city of Jerusalem which had been formed less by exact report than by millennia of longing. Fifty-four years later, Scholem, by then world-famous as the leading authority, on Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, wrote in his 1977 autobiography Von Berlin nach Jerusalem about this youthful voyage. In passing he would remark that he went there with the "born schoolmaster"--"Schulmeister" was his word--Fritz Goitein. This is what he wrote in full:
 With a very knowledgeable, somewhat younger
 member of the Frankfurt circle I arranged a
 joint passage from Trieste.... That was Fritz
 Goitein, the scion of a famous Moravian-Hungarian
 family of rabbis.... He had had an excellent
 Jewish education.... Goitein was a rare
 blend, for he was a person with an artistic, even
 poetic, vein who was at the same time a scholar
 and a born schoolmaster.


I was a student of Shlomo Dov Goitein, or SDG, as all his students came to call him; when I mentioned to him that I had read Scholem's book and had seen his name, he said, "Yes, and did you see that he called me a Schulmeister?" I was startled to realize that he had ignored the larger passage to focus on that one phrase and had been deeply hurt.

Now, if any human being ever brought glory to the appellation of "Schoolmaster," it was S. D. Goitein. If there is a Platonic archetype of the Schoolmaster somewhere in the transcendent realm it must bear the features of SDG. This is not to agree with Scholem wholly--there was more to Goitein than professor or poet--but certainly he did embody, and with passionate intensity, all that goes to make a great pedagogue: in every aspect of his teaching there was method and forethought, but best of all he loved his students, sternly, wholeheartedly, and for life. Through Goitein I came to realize that culture survives not solely or perhaps even mainly through institutions, but through the individuals who carry that culture and transmit it from one generation to the next. Goitein was such a "culture-carrier," or Kulturtrager, to use the German expression.

In the Pirqe Avoth, or Sayings of the Fathers, that small tractate of the Talmud which constitutes the pithiest and most eloquent guide to a righteous life that I know, we are exhorted, in the name of Jehoshua ben Perachyah, "Procure a teacher for thyself." And again, on the authority of Rabban Gamaliel we are instructed, "Provide thyself a teacher and relieve thyself of doubt." Why does the Talmud advise us to get a teacher Of course, for the sake of knowledge. But what sort of knowledge? Knowledge is good in itself but it is not mere knowledge that is meant. It is knowledge of the Law, of the Torah, that is enjoined. What in the broadest sense does that imply? The knowledge sought is the knowledge of the law and precepts by which we must live. And for this a teacher is indispensable, not only because he or she knows more than we do, but because a true teacher not only impart knowledge, but lives it.

I was trained by S. D. Goitein and others as an Islamicist. In the Islamic tradition, seeking knowledge is as strongly emphasized as in the Jewish. A famous tradition runs: "Seek knowledge, even in China." By this is meant not knowledge of China or Chinese, but knowledge of the way in which to live in accord with the religious law; for this knowledge we should be willing to go to the ends of the earth. Again the Pirqe Avoth we read, "He whose deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom endure, but he whose wisdom exceeds his deeds, his wisdom does not endure."

Goitein was a scholar who placed his formidable knowledge at the service of other over a long and productive life. He was a very great scholar and historian, an Islamicist by formation but also a Biblical expert and commentator, an editor of texts a palaeographer, an ethnologist whose fieldwork on the Jews of Yemen remain fundamental, a linguist, a medievalist and economic historian, a pedagogue, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem from its inception, and, not least, a Hebrew poet and playwright. A polyglot, the list of his over 600 works in Hebrew, English, German, and French fills an entire book.

Goitein was born in 1900 in a small Bavarian village where his father served a rabbi. (The name Goitein derives from the old Czech Kajetan.) As a young student Goitein moved to Frankfurt in order to receive a traditional Gymnasium education; there he gained a mastery of Greek and Latin as well as French and English; in addition, he was sent at five a.m. on every morning of his student years, from earliest childhood, to study Hebrew and Talmud with a private tutor. An altruist, he was active in many student groups in Germany and gravitated to the charismatic circle that had formed in Frankfurt around the influential figures of Franz Rosenthal and Martin Buber. He may even have crossed paths with Franz Kafka who went to Germany from Prague to study Talmud later in his short life. In Jerusalem Goitein pursued a brilliant career as professor and scholar. He was especially proud of his ten-year service as His Britannic Majesty's Education Officer for Palestine; once he told me that while making his rounds he used to carry a volume from a massive medieval biography of the Sufi saints in Arabic in his uniform pocket and would read this on his lunch break. During the thirty-five years Goitein spent in Israel, he was immensely prolific, and a stream of works poured from his pen, not only in German, French, and English but increasingly in Hebrew: Biblical commentaries, reviews, works on the history of the Hebrew language, essays on society and politics, and even poetry and plays in Hebrew. Endowed with a prodigious and well-disciplined memory, he knew most of the Hebrew Bible by heart as well as most of the Koran in Arabic. From Israel he undertook field trips to Yemen where he produced a groundbreaking study of the Yemenite Jews, their customs, proverbs, and dialects; he accompanied the airlift of Yemeni Jews to Israel and acted on behalf of this isolated community. At the same time, he was editing one of the most fundamental early works of Arabic historiography; his edition is still standard, almost seventy-five years later.

Why do I mention this? After September II, of course, the study of Classical Arabic or of Islamic history--indeed, virtually anything to do with Islam--has taken on evitably tragic hues. I mention this aspect my teacher's career because it embodied stubborn hope. Goitein was a hard-liner Israeli politics, an extreme conservative, you will; but that never stopped him from believing that Jews and Muslims and Christians had immensely much in common that, in fact, the three great monotheistic faiths were more alike than they were different. He had found in Yemen that the Jews there were "the most Jewish and the most Arab of all Jews." This insight of an unsuspected and deep affinity between Jew and Arab, a remarkable perception for a European-born Ashkenazi Jew, became one of his guiding principles.

At the age of fifty-seven, S. D. Goitein retired from Hebrew University and emigrated to the United States where he took up a new life and a new career, firs at Dropsie College and then at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, where I studied with him. At an age when many scholars are beginning to think about laying down their pens, Goitein embarked on a fresh venture: the study of the documents of the Cairo Geniza. The Hebrew word geniza denotes a storeroom; in particular, the storeroom in the Synagogue of Ibn Ezra in Cairo (recently restored through the efforts of Phyllis Lambert) in which scraps of paper--letters, receipts, invoices, bills of lading, marriage contracts, wills, you-name-it--had been deposited by pious Egyptian Jews for several centuries. No paper that bore the name of God could be discarded and since virtually every paper in daily life invoked God's blessing or approbation, every imaginable human document wound up in the Geniza. And the process went on for centuries; the Geniza is a kind of literary midden in which each stratum contains the daily memory of a generation: its business dealings, its marriages and divorces, its deaths and births, its commercial and private correspondence, and much much more. The majority of Geniza papers were written in Judaeo-Arabic, that is, Arabic written in Hebrew characters; this is the same language in which Maimonides (whose letters figure prominently in the Geniza) wrote his great Guide of the Perplexed, or Dalalat al-ha'irin, as he called it in Arabic. The Cairo Geniza was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century almost by accident by Solomon Schechter, the great Cambridge scholar of Judaic thought and history. Schechter had the repository transferred to Cambridge and thus a new scholarly discipline was born. And it was this vast endeavor of Geniza Studies, involving the identification and compilation of literally thousands of documents--mostly in fragments--dispersed around the world--in Philadelphia, in Cambridge, England, in St. Petersburg mad Paris and Helsinki--that occupied Goitein for the remaining thirty years of his life and that resulted in his masterwork, the six-volume history entitled A Mediterranean Society, the last volume of which appeared after his death in 1985. A Mediterranean Society, which Goitein wrote over a seventeen-year period, is a genuine scholarly masterpiece, not only teeming with minute and detailed information which enables us to reconstruct Jewish and Muslim life in the middle ages but a considerable literary accomplishment as well, for Goitein took great pains to write an English that was clear, simple, and eloquent. In his pages an entire world is resurrected for our edification and delectation. And because the Jews of Cairo were involved on an intense daily basis with their Muslim and Christian neighbors Goitein was able to piece together much about tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-century practices of the society, and the Mediterranean world, at large. Furthermore, because the Jews of Cairo were traveling merchants and roamed the known world, their letters and other papers provide precious information on a host of other cultures and societies, from Europe to India. One small nugget, as an example: on their long return trips from India, Jewish merchants would often bring parrots along which they would teach to recite the Hebrew scriptures; on arrival in Cairo these learned and eloquent birds commanded a high price.

Readers who wish to get some sense of Goitein's achievement may now consult a one-volume abridgement, published in 1999, by the historian Jacob Lassner. (1) Lassner has trimmed and shaped Goitein's immense study with skill and tact. My only objection is his decision to re-write much of Goitein's idiosyncratic English prose in order, as he puts it, "to make his correct but at times cumbersome sentences more accessible." Lassner is that rarity among Islamic historians, a scholar who writes exceedingly well, but his intrusive editing tends to strip his abridgement of Goitein's inimitable voice. That said, Lassner's synopsis is still probably the best book to start with in tackling A Mediterranean Society.

The letters which Goitein and his students pieced together--often resembling a global jigsaw puzzle with one piece in Philadelphia, another in Vienna and still a third in St. Petersburg--are astonishing documents; in these resurrected pages obscure individuals, utterly forgotten, speak in their own distinctive accents, lost for centuries. (Goitein's anthology, Letters of Medieval Jewish Merchants, published by Princeton in 1974, brims with such missives.) I offer one snippet, this from a letter from around the year 1204, from a merchant to his wife who had berated him in an earlier letter. (A trip to India took at least two years in those days and so husbands and wives were subjected to long separations.) The merchant writes:
 In your letters you alternately rebuke and offend
 me or put me to shame and use harsh
 words all the time. I have not deserved any of
 this. I swear by God, I do not believe that the
 heart of anyone traveling away from his wife
 has remained like mine, all the time and during
 all the years ... so constantly thinking of you
 and yearning after you and regretting to be unable
 to provide you with what I so much
 desire: your legal rights on every Sabbath and
 holiday, and to fulfill all your wishes, great and
 small, with regard to dresses or food or anything
 else.... You rebuke me with regard to
 the ambergris.... Had you known how much
 trouble and expenses I have incurrred to get
 this ambergris for you, you would have said:
 there is nothing like it in the world.


Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!

Goitein once said to me, "I am a pugnacious man. I work out my pugnacity every day by trying to figure out these medieval letters. I have to fight to understand them and in this way, I take out my aggressive instincts on paper and not on other people."

Imagine, if you will, a small, slight, fine-boned man, bald except for a dwindling tonsure of white hair, a neat and dapper man with the keenest blue eyes flashing behind no-nonsense black-framed spectacles; a man whose round face seemed constantly in motion as he spoke, for it was his evident belief that words had to be reinforced by gesture and expressive emphasis to make the maximum impact. Of course, he reveled in words in many languages, all of which he pronounced with a faint German accent. I remember one class in which a student offered a novel translation of a difficult word. Goitein paused. With uplifted hand he said, "Wait, let me taste that for a minute!" and he actually smacked his lips in a kind of lexical mastication. Or an obscure verse in an old Arabic poem would spark a reminiscence and he would begin to recite, in magnificent Hebrew, a Biblical parallel--he favored the Book of Job which he knew by heart--after which he would command the student at his right hand: Trans-late! Though he did not always state this explicitly, such parallels were of the greatest consequence to him for reasons I will come back to.

Goitein taught by dramatic example. So gifted was he that now, thirty years later, I find certain concepts embedded in my memory accompanied by his gestures, his expression, his accent and tone of voice. Yes, he had his foibles and even his flaws; who does not? But these enhanced his stature for his students; it was his humanity that drew us as well as his learning, and not some brittle sanctity.

To give one amusing example: Once, meeting Professor Goitein in the University of Pennsylvania bookstore, I was surprised to find as we chatted that he was steadily steering me in a certain direction with small but firm nudges. When he brought me to a stop by a display of new books, his face lit up and he exclaimed, "Why, what have we here? A new book by Mister Goitein!" (He often referred to himself in the third person as if he were observing with bemused curiosity the antics of some eccentric relative.) This blatant vanity all who came to know him found somehow touching. How must it be after all to find oneself largely unknown and unrecognized in a new country after a long career elsewhere? Honors--one of the first MacArthur Awards, appointment to the Institute of Advanced Study--came, but not for a very long time and his obscurity must have been painful to him, though he never complained about it.

Another anecdote: One cold day as I was heading to class I noticed a strange figure ahead of me. This slight shape appeared to be bundled inside a voluminous overcoat such as Nanook of the North might sport on an ice floe, and this bulging garment was topped by a close-fitting cap with long swinging appendages on each side. The apparition turned out to be none other than Professor Goitein in winter attire. When he entered the classroom, but before removing his outer garments, he demonstrated the advantages of his garb. "Why," he asked, "does Mr. Goitein wear such a coat?" "He wears such a coat," he answered himself, "because his good wife has sewn an old mink jacket into the inside lining to keep Mr. Goitein warm." At this he proceeded to model the coat, swinging open both sides to reveal a thick and sumptuous lining of rather tattered mink, all the while turning his head so his fuzzy khaki earflaps danced. It was an aviator's hat and "Mr. Goitein" wore it inside out, he explained, so the otherwise useless ornamental fur could protect his ears. This was not the end. "And why does Mr. Goitein need to keep so warm?" Because otherwise he might catch cold and so lose time for his research. In life not a minute, not a second, could be wasted.

What made him special as a teacher and why do I remember him so fondly, over thirty years since I first studied with him and over fifteen years since his death?

Not for his idiosyncracies alone hut for his genius in inspiring a love of passionate precision combined with an equal love of historical imagination. Before a text, whether it was a text on the love of God or the battle of Armorium or a stanza of Bedouin poetry or a dunning letter from a medieval merchant, his whole being became engaged and magically expansive. And like a sorcerer he pulled surprise after surprise out of what to us seemed dry bones indeed. His knowledge was exceedingly exact. If he compared a word in an Arabic poem with a cognate term from the Book of Job, it was because there was a precise and demonstrable philological parallel to be drawn; he was never impressionistic and vague but spoke always on the basis of strict learning and scientific principle. At the same time he was seldom narrowly pedantic. He saw human history as a continuum in which present and past were connected. What we were reading, or attempting to read, had something to do with us too; not because it was "relevant" in the narrow contemporary sense but because spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally we were all still part of that continuous past. Thus, in reading an author he would often refer to him as "our friend." Our friend Ibn Khaldun says this, our friend Maimonides says that. To him, through the force and beauty of the word, these men were still living presences and, in reading their works, we encountered them.

One small example. We were reading a treatise on ethics from the eleventh century by Miskawayhi, a Persian sophisticate who wrote in Arabic; to read such a text is to be struck by the variety of references as well as the witticisms, the wordplays, the unexpected digressions and detours the author makes through different byways of learning, and to come to the hasty conclusion that the work is really rather a hodgepodge of disconnected notions. For Goitein, it was nothing of the sort and he showed us why. What motivated our friend Miskawayhi to say this? Why was he trying to make such a point? When we couldn't answer satisfactorily, Goitein said: you must understand for whom he wrote the text. He is addressing the idle rich young men of the eleventh century, the jeunesse doree of Baghdad. And what does an idle rich young man fear the most? He fears boredom. This fear of boredom is what drives the author's style.

At once, the text was illumined for us, it made sense, vivid sense; and for a fleeting second, we felt that we had touched the mind and motive of a man who had lived over a thousand years before. Who could not understand the fear of boredom? In Goitein's hands, the text came alive, as if it had been written for us yesterday. And then he would proceed to trace the history of boredom in eleventh-century Baghdad, that super-refined, elegant, delicately neurotic environment, until the works we read took on color and shading and nuance, like those dusty rocks which suddenly iridesce under ultraviolet light. It had not occurred to us to look behind a text in this way nor even to imagine that someone separated from us by language, culture, belief, and almost a thousand years of time could feel, of all things, boredom, as we did. This imaginative recognition repeated itself in class after class. By some commonsensical observation buttressed by immense learning, he opened our imaginations as well as our intellects and the past swarmed into life.

Goitein gave us something equally precious along with this generosity of historical grasp. He himself was an exponent of a nineteenth-century German scholarly tradition which he had inherited from his Gymnasium education. Although he refused to write in German after the Holocaust and spoke it reluctantly, he kept a strong sense of what had been good and worthwhile in his own early training. Part of this was his belief, which I mentioned earlier, in the deep affinities that hound Jews, Christians and Muslims together throughout the centuries. This belief was founded in old-fashioned philology; that is, in viewing cultures and peoples first through the languages in which they expressed themselves, in this case, Hebrew, Aramaic or Syriac, and Arabic. Over time, and because of terrible, unspeakable events, his belief took on a moral shading. When I asked him about Franz Rosenzweig, whom he had known in Frankfurt, he told me that he had always felt that Rosenzweig emphasized the differences between Christianity and Judaism too much; that in the final analysis, the two religions were closer in essence than they knew. (The same view about Jews mad Muslims led him to write his popular book Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages.) Though he never stated it to me explicitly, I came to believe that his emphasis on this profound kinship among the three faiths and their cultures arose from his fervent hope for reconciliation and peace among them. For his students, his firmness on this subject was a great help. In the 1960s every department of Near Eastern or Islamic studies was torn apart by dissension arising from the Arab-Israeli conflict. By focusing so resolutely on the philological tradition as well as on the common humanity of Jews, Christians, and Muslims within a specific historical milieu and tradition--and not through some vague good will or fuzzy ecumenism--Goitein gave us a way of negotiating those awful divisions. Would that he were with us now!

But what made Goitein a great teacher was not merely his own erudition, fabulous as it was, or the warmth of his personality or even his passionate convictions but his lifelong, incurable, and unquenchable curiosity. He was a perpetual student himself and in a state of concentrated delight at every new fact or hint of a fact. At times this insatiable appetite for fact could be shocking. Once, the father of a favorite graduate student was brutally murdered and Goitein insisted on going to the funeral, at a Polish Catholic Church, even though it took place on the Sabbath. I drove him there and we sat together during the mass. Throughout the service he peppered me with questions. Why is the priest doing that? What does this gesture signify? Can you explain those vestments? Afterwards, exhausted, I listened in horror as he interrogated the funeral director about the precise mode of embalming that he used. Were the intestines removed beforehand? How was this done?

Nothing was foreign, nothing was too insignificant for notice, every person and every occasion and every object was valuable and instructive. When a passionate dog-lover married into his family, he promptly sat down and became a dazzling authority on dogs so as to be able to converse with his new in-law and make her feel at home; often he astonished us with his arcane knowledge of schnauzers and Bedlington terriers. In this too he embodied the teaching of the Sages; does it not say, also in Avoth: "Despise not any man and discard not any thing, for there is not a man who has not his hour and not a thing which has not its place?" Goitein might have appreciated eleventh-century boredom but he never seemed to suffer from it, in any century. There was even something a bit frightening about his inquisitiveness, something implacable, and relentless. The gracefulness of his many books with their lightly worn erudition rested on a fierce tenacity of purpose.

Perhaps the greatest revelation we his students could have had occurred when he left the University of Pennsylvania to join the Institute for Advanced Study at Prince ton. At a banquet in his honor, on April 30, 1970, Goitein gave a talk entitled "The Life Story of a Scholar" to the assembled faculty and students of the Department of Oriental Studies. Simple, moving, and eloquent, his talk condensed not only his own then-seventy years into a few moments but contained the century, with all its horrors, as well. At one point in his talk, a moment I will never forget, he suddenly brandished his fist over his head, a diminutive prophet, and exclaimed, "there was a constant discrepancy between a particularly happy personal life, and the heartbreak, horror, and wrath at the sight of so much human misery and degradation experienced during this century. Often I asked myself: How was I able to live through all this? How often did I cry out with Job: 'Is my strength the strength of stone, or my flesh made of bronze?' And how often did I feel like the Book of Deuteronomy when it says: 'You will be driven mad by the sight which your eyes shall see.'" It had never occurred to me until then that happiness too could be a trial.

Afterwards in speaking with other professors, we realized how privileged we had been as his students. All of them said that they had never known him until that night; that to them he had seemed aloof, obsessed only with time, uninterested in knowing them. It was to us, his students, that he had revealed himself, week after week, in classes or in informal gatherings at his home. I found this astonishing and moving. Through his example of intellectual passion and immense learning, of devotion to principle, through his exactitude and kindness and justice, through his lev tov, the good heart commended by the Sages, we came to appreciate the awesome force of example which an extraordinary teacher can personify and which I for one will always remember.

(1) A Mediterranean Society: An Abridgement in One Volume, revised and edited by Jacob Lassner; University of California Press, 501 pages $45.
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Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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